The new President of the European Commission was the most eagerly anticipated public figure of 2019. In 2020, all eyes will be on her.
When Jean-Claude Juncker assumed the leadership of the European Commission in 2014, his main task was to prevent the disintegration of the monetary union. The financial, economic, and debt crisis was sorely testing the future of the Eurozone. The European Stability Mechanism had recently been created, and it was decided that the monetary union would be flanked by a banking union, whose credit oversight would be entrusted to the European Central Bank. Nevertheless, the risk of Grexit was still in the air. The confederative model was on the ropes, and in Juncker’s eyes, there was a need to inject a dose of federalism into the institutional framework. He did so by proposing a Eurozone budget, creating a fund for strategic investments, and imposing an ill-fated and controversial mechanism for mandatory refugee relocation throughout the European Union.
A few weeks ago, Ursula von der Leyen was elected President of the European Commission. The challenge is no longer stabilising the monetary union, but rather closing the ranks within the European Union. The historic exit of the United Kingdom, the rise of souverainism in many Member States, the weakening of the rule of law in certain Eastern European countries, and international political uncertainty driven by American multilateralism and Chinese ambition are all threatening to undermine the European edifice. The former German Minister of Defence therefore announced that the Commission would be “geopolitical” and not merely “political”, as her predecessor had stated five years ago. The ambiguity of this term notwithstanding, one must assume that the European Union will aim to be more assertive in defending its interests on the wider global scene.
The choice of Ursula von der Leyen is two-fold. On the one hand, it reflects the inevitable consequences of the Community integration process of the last several years: the deeper and wider integration is, the more international interests the Community will have. At the same time, having a projection outside the Community’s borders provides the impetus or the justification for growing stronger within these borders. In the past, the European wars of the early XIX century gave Napoleon Bonaparte the opportunity to reform France’s administrative structure, adopt a civil code, and create new universities – in other words, to centralise power.
Engagement with the world can be the right tool to strengthen cohesion between governments. In this regard, the two major issues that Ursula von der Leyen intends to focus on over the next five years must both prepare the European Union for the future and give its countries a new esprit de corps. Climate change and the digital revolution are not only crucial issues for the economy and for society. They are also fields in which national governments alone can do little, and where a communitarian effort best expresses its competitive advantage. The road ahead is steep, if only because the European Parliament is much more fragmented than in the past, but the goal is worthy.
Ursula von der Leyen is the first woman to head the European Commission, and she is also the first German to head this Institution since Walter Halstein, who stepped down in 1967. While fears that Germany may come to dominate the Commission’s work are legitimate, they are also misplaced. Germany’s presence in the Community’s crucial nodes is already better rooted than that of most other Member States. In fact, the presence of a German at the head of the European Commission may turn out to be the right opportunity to hold the majority shareholder accountable at a time in which our uncertain world should encourage it to re-invest in the European safe harbour. Primus inter pares, Mrs. von der Leyen will have to be principled in her management of the Commission’s work. If anything, there may be questions regarding the nature of her Europeanism. Let me explain myself better.
The new head of the European Union’s executive branch does not have any experience as a Prime Minister, but she has served in ministerial posts in the Federal German Republic for 15 years, first as Minister of Social Affairs, then as Minister of Defence. She is 61 years old, is a physician, and is the mother of seven children. She has no shortage of character, determination, and probably savoir faire. She speaks English and French quite fluently, and lived in Belgium, where she was born, as a young girl. As she pointed out in Strasbourg in July, back then her father was a Community official: “I was born in Brussels as a European. Only later did I find out I was German”. And yet, unlike the Luxembourgeois Jean-Claude Juncker who has been multilingual and European since birth and by definition, the new president is profoundly German. Her political and family roots lie in Lower Saxony, north of the Roman limes. If we had to classify the German people, we would say that Ursula von der Leyen is as Anglo-Saxon and Protestant as Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer were Latin and Catholic. She belongs to that category of Germans who look northward rather than southward. While Konrad Adenauer, on his first trip to Italy, would sleep in train stations to make sure he had enough time to visit the churches and museums he had read about in guidebooks, Mrs. von der Leyen was naturally attracted to ‘swinging London’.
Like many other politicians of her generation, Mrs. von der Leyen’s Europeanism is not driven by passion, but rather by functionality. Pragmatism prevails over idealism. In spite of her birthplace, her Europeanism is one of reason, not of the heart. Much in the same way she believes that the NATO membership of many EU Member States is compatible with Community integration, her speeches perennially tread a fine line. The political situation is vexed – in the European Parliament, between partners, and with many allies – and perhaps her method is the only one that can realistically be adopted. More than many other leaders, the new President of the European Commission must be judged with patience, on the basis of results and not speeches, and of achievements instead of proposals.